Lose-lose: Pols say SUNY Downstate could follow LICH’s downward spiral

They have the same job — and they want the same job
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

The state’s marquee Brooklyn hospital could go down with the sinking ship that is Long Island College Hospital, politicians, union bigs, and community leaders warned at a meeting on Feb. 6.

The state has spent the last year trying to close and sell off Long Island College Hospital, but the process has been tied up in legal battles while the state has pled poverty, claiming that running the facility is a money pit that endangers the operation of its main Kings County interest, the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in East Flatbush. Now, local officials insist that the state was not bluffing, though some brushed off management’s claim that the fight to save Cobble Hill’s medical center is to blame.

“Some people are saying because LICH stakeholders held up the process it has hurt Downstate. They blame the stakeholders,” said Public Advocate Letitia James. “That’s a lot of hyperbole.”

The gathering at the Saint Lucia House on E. 49th Street between Church and Snyder avenues drew a gaggle of state officials including assemblymen Walter Mosley (D–Prospect Heights), James Brennan (D–Flatbush), and Karim Camara (D–Prospect Lefferts Gardens) as well the public advocate and Borough President Adams. A contingent of clergy members and Downstate staffer union representatives also turned out.

The state took control of a floundering Long Island College Hospital in 2011, putting it under the control of the state university system, and tying its fate to the Downstate Medical Center, according to state reps. University trustees voiced concerns about the hospital hemorrhaging cash at a meeting last month, going so far as to say that the sale of the land valued at as much as $500 million might not be enough to save Downstate.

“Even if we execute a sale of the [Long Island College Hospital] property that yields the appraised value, SUNY will still be left with a gap of at least $300 million,” said Robert Haelen, who is serving as interim chief financial officer for the board of trustees. “The numbers are daunting.”

Haelen added that Downstate is currently making money, but the state expects it to start running in the red by March. The expected shortfall has supporters clamoring for more state funding to keep Downstate open.

“The governor continues to ignore this community,” said Pastor Shane Vidal from the Maranatha Seventh Day Adventist Church. “He has a responsibility to respect people.”

Gov. Cuomo has so far refused to budge on his budget proposal, which according to union officials cuts public teaching hospital funding by half.

But he and Mayor DeBlasio are begging the feds for a waiver that would allow the state to spend $10 billion of Medicaid money to prop up struggling medical centers around the state.

Local pols worry that the money may skip Downstate because the waiver is not granted on the basis of need, but is intended to promote programs that are in line with federal healthcare policy.

Agitator-in-chief: Public Advocate Letitia James says not to buy the state's story that activists fighting to save Long Island College Hospital sunk its East Flatbush host.
Community Newspaper Group / Ben Muessig

“It’s clear that we have a need,” said Assemblyman Karim Camara. “But we’ll still have to compete for it.”

Downstate has already shed jobs, according to labor leaders active in the hospital.

The staff has been reduced from a high of 8,000 workers to around 7,000, said Don Morgenstern, who is a leader in the Public Employees Federation union and was recently laid off from his research position at Downstate.

And as staffing levels have decreased, patient loads have gone up, he said.

“They are killing patients, and they don’t care,” said Morgenstern.

“They care only about dollars,” he added.

Advocates stress that closing any hospital affects all of Brooklyn, since cut-off patients have to be absorbed by other medical centers.

“My district is nowhere near Downstate,” said Assemblyman Walter Mosley. “But I understand the ripple effect. This not only affects the neighborhood surrounding SUNY Downstate, but the neighborhoods surrounding all the other hospitals.”

Some residents of East Flatbush agree.

“The hospital is the lifeline of Central Brooklyn,” said Jennifer Clarke, a 26-year resident of the neighborhood. “If you close Downstate you’re literally killing Brooklyn.”

Reach reporter Matthew Perlman at (718) 260-8310. E-mail him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjperlman.
Adams' beat: Borough President Adams wants to save Brooklyn's hospitals but is not sure how to do it.
Photo by Stefano Giovannini